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Russian Music at Home and Abroad
By Richard Taruskin
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
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Non-Nationalists, and Other Nationalists
You don't have to be Russian to love Tchaikovsky.
— RALPH p. LOCKE
Here's an old story I must have heard a hundred times growing up in a family of Yiddish-speaking émigrés from the Russian empire, many of whom had been members of radical organizations in the old country and joined similar organizations in America. My family had both Socialist and Communist members, and as you must know, Socialists and Communists hated one another far more than they hated capitalists. I had relatives on both sides when Socialists and Communists would try to break up each other's meetings with heckling that often ended up in brawls. According to the old story, told with relish from both perspectives, the police were breaking up one such brawl; a cop had his nightstick poised above the head of one of the brawlers, who looked up and said, "But officer, I'm an anti-Communist." "I don't care what kind of Communist you are," said the officer as the billy club came down.
That's how I feel about "non-nationalist" Russian music. I don't care what kind of nationalist you are; as long as we see nationalism as the issue dividing Russian musicians, we are still in the ghetto that nationalist discourse has created for us. The ghetto is especially evident here because we have chosen to speak only about Russian opera at this conference, and that means that our question is still "How Russian is it?" — the baleful question that I identified, and tried to shake, a decade and a half ago in Defining Russia Musically. That book, of course, did not succeed in shaking the baleful question, because it, too, was almost wholly devoted to music by Russian composers and therefore succeeded, at best, in merely adding a new wing to the ghetto.
In the Oxford History of Western Music I tried to shake it by spreading Russian composers as evenly as I could through the volumes devoted to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Russia makes its debut, it is true, in a chapter called "Nations, States, and Peoples," which sounds suspiciously like a euphemism for the old ghetto of "nationalism" But Russia's company in that chapter consisted of Germany and France, and my purpose was to show that nationalism spread to Russia with westernization. In the next chapter, on virtuosos, I gave a lengthy description of Liszt's first recital in St. Petersburg, replete with comments from Glinka, as related by Stasov, together with a retort to Glinka from another St. Petersburger, quoted by Stasov (and by me) in the original — that is, in French. The purpose was to make Russia (or at least St. Petersburg) seem a normal — which is to say, an unmarked — venue for European music-making.
In the chapter given in part to Chopin, Russia figured as the oppressor nation against which Chopin's nationalist sentiments were directed, and in a chapter called "Slavs as Subjects and Citizens" Russia was contrasted with the Czech and Moravian lands, with Smetana and Balakirev as the protagonists. The purpose there was chiefly to show how national character is assigned to music — by audiences as well as composers, sometimes in the presence of folklore, but sometimes without its benefit. In the chapter following those on Wagner and Verdi, called "Cutting Things Down to Size," Russian realism, exemplified by Musorgsky's Boris Godunov and Chaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, is juxtaposed with French opéra lyrique, verismo, and operetta. In the last chapter of the nineteenth-century volume, symphonies by Borodin and Chaikovsky are discussed alongside symphonies by Bruckner, Dvorak, Amy Beach, César Franck, Saint-Saëns, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Sibelius. One thing I knew I would do from the moment I conceived the book, before I even sat down to write the medieval chapters, was to make Alexander Serov one of the main spokesmen of the New German School. I admit that I was delighted to give myself a pretext for sneaking into the text a picture of the man to whom I devoted most of my doctoral dissertation, and in full consciousness that mine would surely be the only English-language general history of music in which Serov's name would even appear in the index.
But the larger purpose, I hope, is clear: it is, to use a term that feminist historians coined, to "mainstream" Russian music and musicians into the general narrative. Serov, like Anton Rubinstein, was accepted during his lifetime as a cosmopolitan figure abroad (though for a Russian the term "cosmopolitan" is never without complications); and he was considered an authentic spokesman for the progressive faction in European musical politics at midcentury. That made him a terrific vehicle for mainstreaming. And yet, as you may know from other parts of the Oxford History, I have been critical of some of the mainstreaming efforts that have been mounted on behalf of women composers, since representing them disproportionately can distort the historical picture in a fashion that actually weakens the main political point of feminist scholarship: namely, that women have been not merely excluded from the historical account but denied the access and opportunities that would have enabled them to earn their place within it.
But that is hardly the case with Russian music, which since the days of Rubinstein in the nineteenth century, and Sergey Diaghilev in the twentieth, has been extremely prominent in the European and American performing repertoire even as it has been minimized and ghettoized in historiography. Of course that minimization-cumghettoization is a legitimate and necessary part of the story one has to tell, but so is the prominence, amounting at times to veritable crazes. For example, in Modern Composers of Europe, a survey published in 1904, Arthur Elson (1873-1940), a Harvard-educated writer who eventually succeeded his father, Louis C. Elson, as music critic of the Boston Advertiser, but who at the time was working as a math and science teacher at a prep school, proclaimed, in the topic sentence of the book's final paragraph: "There seems little doubt that Russia is to-day the leader of the world of music." He then proceeded to justify the claim by disposing of possible rivals one by one:
While Wagner to some extent checked development in Germany, because his great achievements were difficult to equal, the national school in Russia, working along similar lines, has made an advance that is shared in by all her composers, and that is leading to continually new progress. The wealth of her folk-lore and poetic legends is an added incentive, and the material has all the charm of novelty for the nations of Western Europe. Germany still has much to say, but it is not so entirely new; France has gone astray for the moment in a maze of weird harmonic effects; Italy, but just awakened from a long sleep, has hardly mastered the new musical language; England and the Netherlands are almost too civilized for the best results; Bohemia has lost some of her greatest leaders, while in Norway Grieg belongs almost to a past generation. Russia, however, is at the height of her activity, and in the next few years the Western world, already familiar with some of her triumphs, will probably be forced to grant her the homage due to the most musical nation in the world.
By the time Elson wrote these words, "Russomania" had been growing for decades in England and America, "having taken off in the 1880s," Tamsin Alexander tells us, "when left-leaning literary circles became enamoured by the elusive 'Russian Soul' via the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky" And while that enthusiasm for Russian culture and its mystique reached music and theater a little later than it did literature, owing to the greater weight, and consequent inertia, of the infrastructure that needed to be mobilized on behalf of the performing arts, it unquestionably achieved the proportions of a frenzy by the time Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes began their industrial-strength export campaign.
Minimization came with the professionalization of Anglophone musicology at the hands of the German Jewish refugees who poured into the United Kingdom and the United States with the rise of National Socialism (or, in some cases, like that of my own Professor Paul Henry Lang, who was neither German nor Jewish but emphatically mitteleuropäisch, slightly in advance of it). Their loyalty to German culture was only intensified by exile, which fostered the conviction (altogether congruent with that felt and expressed by Arthur Lourie on behalf of russkoye zarubezhye, the Russian cultural diaspora, in chapter 7 of this book) that they, rather than the thugs who had expelled them, were the bearers of the fatherland's "true" or "pure" culture, whence the zeal with which they set about rebuilding their institutional environment on Anglophone turf and communicating its mores, a nervous overemphasis on canonicity prominent among them, to a new cohort of pupils and disciples — a task that included the construction of the ghetto for "other" musics in which we were once confined. But here I will stop pressing my attempts to counter the old habits of my profession, happily no longer as firmly entrenched as they once were. As you can imagine, the account of twentieth-century music in the Oxford History, replete with Stravinsky and Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and Prokofieff, Schnittke and Gubaidulina, offered manifold opportunities for mainstreaming, but to go on offering my own work as an example may, if it gives an impression of self-interest, lessen the effectiveness of the argument. Nevertheless, the example is relevant to my point that we need to look for other contexts into which to place Russian music if we want to accord it an appropriate position within the historical narrative and counter the essentialist assumptions that have demeaned it — above all, the dogma that the authenticity or legitimacy of Russian music depends on its Russianness, however that quality is defined.
There are so many other contexts, after all, into which Taneyev's Oresteia — the centerpiece around which the present conference has been built — might have been inserted. We could have had a conference on operas after Aeschylus, or after Greek drama generally. In that case, Taneyev would have taken his place in a distinguished lineage that might have gone all the way back to the Florentine camerata. (Of course, I would not have been invited to that conference.) It could have been a conference on mythological opera, in which case the Wagnerians would have invaded, so I can understand why we didn't go that route. How about a conference on opera in the decade after Wagner? There would have been many prominent Russian works to feature alongside those by Germans, Frenchmen, and Italians. How about a conference about leitmotifs in and out of opera? Or on one-opera composers? (Taneyev would have fared pretty well against Franck and Schumann, but then there'd be Beethoven.) How about operas published by Belyayev? (In that case Taneyev would be in counterpoint with Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, thus crosscutting the factitious divide between nationalists and "non-nationalists.") By now I'm reaching, obviously, but I hope you will agree with me that the old factitious divide didn't do Russian music any good.
Not that I don't sympathize with the effort to give "non-nationalists" their due. There is only one thing worse than being confined to a ghetto, after all, and that is being judged a bad ghetto citizen, which is how Chaikovsky is usually portrayed in non-Russian textbooks, to say nothing of Rubinstein or other "cosmopolitan" figures. In the most recent such textbook published in America, which, following recent trends in textbook publication, has very little continuous text but consists in the main of bite-sized verbal clumps, there is an opening that presents, on facing pages, a lightly annotated listing of "Major Composers of the 19 th Century," grouped by countries. Although the breakdown thus emphasizes nations, the issue of national character is explicitly raised in only three of the nine groups: Spain, Russia, and the United States (not Scandinavia, not Great Britain, not even Bohemia). And only in the paragraph devoted to Russia is the matter presented as contentious. I'll quote approximately the first half of the paragraph, silently omitting parenthetical information like dates or cross-references. It reads:
Mikhail Glinka was one of the first Russian composers to gain international fame. While studying in Italy as a young man, he experienced "musical homesickness," the desire to hear music that was distinctively Russian. His two great operas, A Life for the Czar and Ruslan and Ludmila, inspired several subsequent generations of Russian composers, including the group known as "The Five": Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modeste Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Many Russian composers considered Tchaikovsky too foreign in training and outlook to belong to this group of nationalists.
Only a Russian composer, in this as in every such book, makes news by not fetishizing his nationality. In the more extended verbal clump that provides a "Composer Profile" for Chaikovsky, we read that he "embraced his Russian heritage but did not make a display of it, unlike some of his contemporaries, who made a point of writing explicitly nationalistic music." One could easily multiply assertions of this kind to illustrate the degree to which being "explicitly nationalistic" has become a normative or default assumption about Russian composers. Notice in this case, for example, that Chaikovsky has to be explicitly pardoned for his deviance from the norm with the assurance that despite everything he "embraced his Russian heritage" after all. I really have no idea what the author meant by that; it makes sense only as a preemptive defense against some kind of implied McCarthyite or Zhdanovite attack (so I guess I do understand it at that); but it strangely parallels the statement one paragraph earlier that Chaikovsky "acknowledged his homosexuality privately but otherwise kept it concealed for fear of public condemnation." It was something else about which one could say that Chaikovsky "embraced" it but "did not make a display of it."
My favorite illustrations of the spurious newsworthiness of non-nationalism in a Russian composer are two. One is Robert P. Morgan's remark that "curiously, Skryabin was not himself nationalist in orientation." (I just love that "curiously"!) The other concerns the protagonist of our conference, Sergey Taneyev, and it is something I'll never forget because it gave me my first impulse to topple the national question from its privileged position in Russian music studies, more than a quarter of a century ago. At a meeting of the Society for Music Theory, the reader of a paper on Taneyev's treatise of 1909, Podvizhnoy kontrapunkt strogogo pis'ma (Invertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style), went out of his way to inform the audience that Taneyev's compositions were "without conspicuous nationalistic elements" When I asked him why he felt it necessary to state this negative "fact," especially in the context of a strict counterpoint text, he replied that it answered "a natural question" about a Russian composer. Natural. That got me thinking seriously, for the first time, about the pitfalls of essentialism.
But if we want to fix the blame for this situation, the name that should head the bill of indictment will not be that of any feckless Western textbook writer, but a name revered in Russia to this day. Any Russian will know that I am about to summon Vladimir Vasil'yevich Stasov to the dock. It is he, more than anyone else, who made the distinction between nationalist and non-nationalist in Russian music not only factitious and contentious, but also invidious. It is to his writings that we must look first to isolate the bacillus we need to extirpate. He wrote so voluminously that sampling his rhetoric could be an endless endeavor, so I will limit myself for the most part to his last testament, the grand summation called The Art of the Nineteenth Century (Iskusstvo XIX-ogo veka), first published in abridged form in 1901 as a supplement to the arts journal Niva and reissued in full five years later (very shortly before Stasov's death) in the fourth volume of his collected works. I will be quoting from the text as given in the third and last volume of the lavish edition of Stasov's Selected Works that was issued by the Soviet publishing unit Iskusstvo in 1952, in the wake of the so-called Zhdanovshchina, when Stasov's writings were recanonized because they were seen to favor the xenophobic arts policies of the Soviet government in the early years of the Cold War.
Excerpted from Russian Music at Home and Abroad by Richard Taruskin. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: My Wonderful World; or, Dismembering the Triad 1
Part 1 Not By Mind?
1 Non-Nationalists, and Other Nationalists 33
2 Revenants 52
3 Crowd, Mob, and Nation in Boris Godunov: What Did Musorgsky Think, and Does It Matter? 58
4 Catching Up with Rimsky-Korsakov 78
5 Not Modern and Loving It 120
6 Written for Elephants: Notes on Rach 3 134
7 Is There a "Russia Abroad" in Music? 140
8 Turania Revisited, with Lourié My Guide 162
9 The Ghetto and the Imperium 233
10 Two Serendipities: Keynoting a Conference, "Music and Power" 303
11 What's an Awful Song Like You Doing in a Nice Piece Like This? The Finale in Prokofieff's Symphony-Concerto, Op. 125 332
12 The Birth of Contemporary Russia out of the Spirit of Music (Not) 348
Part 2 Revisiting Stravinsky
13 Just How Russian Was Stravinsky? 361
14 How the Rite Became Possible 366
15 Diaghilev without Stravinsky? Stravinsky without Diaghilev? 384
16 Resisting the Rite 395
17 Stravinsky's Poetics and Russian Music 428
18 Did He Mean It? 472
19 In Stravinsky's Songs, the True Man, No Ghostwriters 503
20 "Un Cadeau Très Macabre" 508